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The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens
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W.B. Yeats, Macha Louis Rosenthal
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Igor Lukes
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum, Philip Gabriel The rain that fell on the city runs down the dark gutters and empties into the sea without even soaking the ground.The sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995 were perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese religious cult, and attracted wide media attention. Aum emerged in 1984 when previously strict measures by the Japanese government against new religions were relaxed. During the post-war American occupation and in the years following, this laxness was an attempt to show that the new political regime in Japan was pursuing progress toward religious freedom. The group’s leader, Asahara Shoko, envisioned himself as a “Lamb of God” and prophesized a doomsday that culminated in a nuclear Armageddon between the United States and Asia. Cult members included a significant number of young scientists, engineers and young students who were drawn in by Asahara’s offering of an alternative to rigid Japanese conformity. Ian Reader points out that young people were attracted by the media’s portrayal of Asahara as “an embittered youth at war with Japanese society from early on.” Despite some media attention in years prior to the attacks, the group gained notoriety following the subway attack in 1995. Membership had reached an estimated 10,000 in Japan and an equal amount in Russia.

The March 20, 1995 attacks killed eleven people and forced 5,500 others to seek medical attention; the attack is the largest incident of terror on Japanese soil in its history. The attack was launched during peak rush hour to maximize exposure, with five members releasing sarin gas at predetermined station locations on the Chiyoda, Marunouchi and Hibiya lines. Once punctured, the bags containing the sarin gas permeated the subway cars and stations, affecting passengers, subway employees and those with whom affected people came in contact. Given the large scale of the attack, the Japanese government demanded information about the attacks and the media gladly provided it – however, the story that the media propagated may have been divergent from the true facts about the cult and about the attacks. Furthermore, the media continued to run Aum-related stories through July; the first day that there was no Aum-related story in Asahi newspaper was 114 days after the event. State-owned NHK and private networks ran Aum-related stories thought August. According to broadcasters’ statistics, from March 20, 1995 until mid-June, more than 500 media hours were devoted to Aum, outstripping even the wedding of the crown prince (419 hours), and viewer rates topped all other topics. These statistics, taken with the media framing, exemplify the media’s potential pandering of stories to Japanese society’s appetite for news on the “atypical” and sensational stories of the Aum cult members and the subway attacks.

(The above is from a term paper I wrote for a freshman seminar. For the full dose of laudanum, the paper is located here.)

Though his surreal/fantastic fiction has earned him international celebrity (and, what I believe are undeserved, pleas for a Nobel award), Haruki Murakami proves to be a talented non-fiction writer and a keen interviewer in his collection Underground which chronicles the life changing effects of those affected, the experiences of unsuspecting spectators, and the dark psychological catacombs of the Aum followers themselves. What is most striking in this collection is the deadening routine of Japanese society: a society whose somnabulating routine brought it over the very precipice of this disaster. Post-war Japan became a nation of sleepwalkers, stuck between the international pressure towards self-loathing, and the national fervor for rejuvenation and rebirth. The society, which in the 1980s and 1990s was swept up in an economic boom became increasingly fixated on efficiency: business efficiency begot moral expediency and the rigid cage of social conformism. Aum won over many young intellectuals (students, engineers) who felt alienated by a strict and severe culture which ceremoniously cast out those who failed to toe the line of propriety and conformity.

Murakami's interviews reveal an alarming composure and similarity between the terrorized and the agents of terror. Many's lives were changed forever, families broken up, financial pressure increased, jobs lost, but the stories of the terrorists are surprisingly stirring. Both sides of this story are moving. Despite the villainy of the Aum cultists, they are portrayed here as humans, flawed and outcast, blindly following a demogogue who made them feel included. Through the two sections of this volume, Murakami casts the shadow of blame across the whole country of Japan, which has lost its humanity in the strident effort to mechanize and automate. In a country where the train arrivals and departures are determined to the hundredth of a second, the well of human compassion has gone untended and dried alarmingly low. A media obsessed with sensation largely ignores the fates of victims: slummed silhouettes on the cement citadel of the humming Japanese econocracy. Murakami seeks the truth: truth in the terrorized and truth in the terrorists, and finds a truth central to a country which has worn thin its moral fiber and spent its currency of compassion.

Like many modern societies, the narrative of Murakami's Japan, in Underground as well as his body of fiction, is a society of the alienated Self. The economic-fervor and moral no-mans-land of post-war Japan becomes weighted battle between the individual self and the over-industrialized economic machine of Modern Japan. A landscape idealized as sloping hills, patchwork rice-paddies, torii gates and Buddhist temples, trickling rivulets and the red rising-sun over the spectral face of Mt. Fuji: the ever pale-purple peak on the horizon, has become a cement-gray prison of daily routine, social conservatism and creative suppression. The boom of metropolitan Tokyo, the explosion of the export economy: all things were cast in the shadow of Yen. But more than a profit-hungry monster, Japanese society became a different sort of monstrosity: one which became complicit with its own disaster, a compliant slave to subway schedules and time-tables. Not the profit-motive, but the straight-and-narrow. Spiritual decline, alienation for society, demanding schedules which ate away most of everyday became the ostensibly innocuous venoms which fed the lurking monster of terror in the shadows of industrialized and modernized Japan life. Murakami unmasks victim and villain with a balance of distance and human compassion, which reveals both the intricate threads of individual lives: the warp and woof, minute and measure of the humans of March 20, 1995, rather than the media-embellished shadow puppets of evil and their unsuspecting doe-eyed innocents, as well as the torn tapestry of a nation in trouble.